Theoretical Basis of Sanctions against Iran’s Nuclear Program:

A Comparison between Diplomacies of Trump and Obama Administrations


From the perspective of international relations, sanction imposers or sender countries have different motives for using this instrument. The change in the US administration’s policy regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is one of the remarkable examples in this context. This paper tries to answer the following question: What is the theoretical different between (Donald) Trump and (Barak) Obama administrations’ sanction policies regarding Iran despite of being compliant with its obligations based on JCPOA. The paper’s assumption is that while the sanction policy of Obama administration was based on making Iran more committed to international norms, the main motive of Trump administration is to advance US maximum interests regardless of legal international restrictions. From this viewpoint, JCPOA was considered an efficient deal by Obama administration while according to Trump administration it would be inefficient. This hypothesis is based on two theories about efficiency of sanctions in international relations including liberalism and realism. It will be examined through an analytical-exploratory method using reliable data.

Keywords: International Norms and Rules, JCPOA, Logic of Sanctions, Liberalism National Interests, Realism, US Policy towards Iran.


1. Introduction

In post-JCPOA era, the Islamic Republic of Iran has faced problems for removal of sanctions which were indicative of US administration’s inclination for making the utmost use of non-nuclear sanctions as well as its thirst to resume sanctions to prevent Iran from taking advantages of JCPOA. Barak Obama, during his last years in office, had made a deal that has been challenged by his critics, particularly those in the Republican Party. In the months leading up to finalizing the JCPOA, a group of US Republican lawmakers sent a message to the Iranian authorities saying that any nuclear deal with Iran requires Congress confirmation to survive after the Obama term. In addition, Congress in practice forced the White House to suspend sanctions against Iran based on limited specific intervals, and then it has been confirmed that the country is in full compliance under the terms of the JCPOA.

Given all those circumstances, the US administration took on certain obligations that were broadly supported by the international community, and nobody even could imagine that the next administration would seriously plan to leave them. Despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly confirmed Iran’s commitment to JCPOA, Trump administration was firmly looking for an excuse to impose sanctions on Iran or even resume nuclear-related sanctions against it. Finally, the US President announced his withdrawal from the nuclear deal arguing that it had problems from the very beginning, and did not meet US demands regarding Iran. He added that he would sign an executive order for imposing toughest-ever sanctions on Iran.

The main issue of this paper is why JCPOA has met such fate. Moreover, it is to answer the main question: What is the theoretical difference between Trump and Obama administration’s sanction policies regarding Iran despite the fact that Iran has been in compliance with its obligations based on JCPOA? The answer is while the sanction policy of Obama administration was mostly based on making Iran more committed to international norms and rules, the Trump administration’s main motive was to advance US maximum national interests regardless of legal international restrictions. From this point of view, for Obama administration, JCPOA was considered an efficient deal as it could coordinate Iran’s nuclear policies with international norms. However, for Trump administration, the deal was inefficient since they believe that it has had no benefit for the US. The hypothesis of the paper is based on two theories about the efficiency of sanctions in international relations: realism and liberalism.

The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Section 1 discusses the functions and logic of imposing sanctions. To this end, views of two fundamental theories in international relations, i.e. realism and liberalism, regarding sanctions will be explained. Section 2 describes the US behavior regarding the lift on sanctions against Iran’s nuclear. In Section 3, sanctions based on foreign policies of Obama and Trump administrations will be described, and finally Section 4 concludes the paper.  


2. International Sanctions: Functions and Logic

Sanctions are a kind of non-military leverage to exert pressure, and are commonly used by  states in their relations with other countries. However, deciding about which countries should be sanctioned or the type, amount, and level of sanctions depends on the specific inclination and preferences of policymakers Recognizing the nature and theoretical basis of sanctions will give us a clearer understanding of them.


2.1 Nature of Sanctions

International sanctions are punitive measures imposed by one or a group of states against one or a group of target states without any tendency of waging war. Sanctions are usually aimed at changing the behavior of the target state(s). Sanction imposition is a coercive action that could be interpreted as a sign of hostility or may lead to escalation of hostility without ending up to an inevitable military conflict. Although diplomacy is not dead under sanctions, that would create an unfriendly atmosphere which may eventually lead to war. There are different types of sanctions. Military and arms sanctions are more common among others, and may even be exercised when two states enjoy friendly relations. Some of the states even avoid providing specific and top arms or technologies to their friends. Arms sanctions as existed in treaties such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), will possibly be seen in the form of ban on producing certain arms despite the fact that technology of their production is available. Although in time of war, arms sanctions have visible impacts, they have no destructive impacts in normal situations.

In normal situations, countries usually use economic sanctions to change the behavior of their rivals or their enemies. Hence, the present research has focused on economic sanctions. Considering the essential role of economic factors in national welfare, economic sanctions may have visible destructive impacts on the national economy, and even may affect political stability. Therefore, economic sanctions may encourage the target state to meet the demands of the country which imposed sanctions (or sender). Economic sanctions are commonly defined as a measure that aims to “change the behavior of target state”, and that is what the sender country announces as its policies. However, narrowing the objective of economic sanctions down to “changing the behavior of the target state” might be somehow misleading. It is also possible that the true motive of the sender country is something beyond just changing the behavior, and practically is the regime change.

There is a clear conceptual similarity between economic sanction and economic war. As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, economic war is: “an economic strategy based on using measures (e.g. blockade) of which the primary effect is to weaken another state’s economy”. However, it is usually used to achieve more fundamental political and security goals. During armed conflict between two or more countries, they may use techniques of economic warfare including economic blockade or destruction of economic infrastructures of the other side as complementary to the armed conflict and a measure that facilitates their victory. But every economic war does not necessarily coincide with armed conflict, and the former may be used as an alternative for the latter. When two belligerent countries are relatively at a similar level of military power or are not so confident about the efficiency of restoring to hostile ways, then the one with stronger economic power might be inclined to use non-hostile instruments, in form of economic sanctions, as an alternative with lower costs. While, in the present world, there is more willingness to replace armed conflict with  soft war, like economic war, there is also a variety of instruments for the economic war )Rosenberg, Goldman, & Drezner, 2016).

Therefore, it seems that economic sanction is a type of conflict using economic means, and avoids hostile methods such as destruction of economic infrastructure of the target state. Critics of economic war believe that it devastates the lives of civilians, and leads to anti-humanitarian and immoral results.

Similar criticisms have always been made about economic sanctions. Economic sanctions affect the decision of the target country from two aspects: damages which are directly inflicted on that country, and the other one is explicit or implicit threats parallelly imposed on that country. Threats, even the implicit ones, play a key role in forcing the target country to submit. Therefore, those states that fail to consider the threatening aspect of sanctions will lose the chance of success. A serious threat causing less damage to sanctions is more effective than an idle threat with higher damage to sanctions. Conveying the sender country’s message which is to change the behavior of the target state and prepared to put more pressures with higher effectiveness is important. To this end, if the sender country is able to make a more powerful international mobilization then it will have more chances to success (Lacy and Niou, 2004: 26-27).

Theoretically, economic sanctions are based on the principle that the main motive of each country is its goals and national interests that can be calculated. Among a variety of alternatives, they will choose the one which provides them more benefits. Another theory about sanctions is that the national interests of countries are deeply intertwined in a way that makes them dependent on each other. Each state which is more dependent will consequently become more vulnerable to sanctions. When one or more countries are seeking to change behavior or policy of another state(s), then they try to define that behavior or policy as something irrational. Under such circumstances, sanctions will affect the target states forcing them to meet the demands of the sender countries. Sanctions are usually progressive, in other words they will become more intensive if they fail to be effective in the first place. Sanction intensification will add to the damage of boycott, and is expected to be eventually effective at some point.

However, this is not so simple in practice. The problem is that countries do not value their interests based on fixed or universal wisdom. Calculating the required level of sanction to force a country to submit would not be unchallenging. It is even possible that sanction per se makes the target country more determined to continue its approach since complying with sender states’ requests, will be considered humiliating. The target state may also think that the spiritual damage of submitting to a sanction will be heavier than its financial damage, and so sanctions intensification is only justified to the extent that it will not lead to bankruptcy or political collapse.

Although sanctioning, as a non-military measure to change a specific behavior or reinforce it, has a long history in international relations, it has gained more momentum since the 20th century, particularly in the post-cold war era. The massive use of economic sanctions was one of the major characteristics of the international relations in the post-cold war era and a number of countries’ policy making, on top of them, the United States were the frontrunner. The US has been sanctioning certain states under different pretexts including the human rights violation, drug trafficking, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation, and when it failed to achieve an international consensus, Washington used to impose unilateral sanctions. From an economic viewpoint, since in a world all countries are economically dependent on each other, sanctions act as a double-edged sword, thus it seems irrational to restore to sanctions. However, sanctioning has a political logic which in its simplest way is defined as “economic hardship in return to political interest” (Elliott, 2005: 3-4).  


2.1.1 The Basis of Sanctions in Liberalism and Realism

To understand the concept of political interest, we have to go beyond pure economic calculations. There are many different analyses about the political basis of sanctions. Various international relations theories present their own analysis of sanctions based on their understanding of the nature and logic of international relations. Here we refer to two major theories of international relations: liberalism and realism. Both theories admit that sanctions are essential instrument for international relations. However, advocates of realism believe that sanctions are a normal reality of international relations used by states in the framework of power policy to ensure their national interests. While, liberals have a prescriptive view about sanctions, and consider them as preventive and legal instruments against violators of international regulations, in other words, the liberal theoreticians of international relations believe that sanctions are unavoidable instruments  used collectively to prevent violation of international norms and rules.

In the present world, where all states have reached an agreement about their common values and norms, and are heading towards the formation of an international community, naturally, certain mechanisms are set to punish possible violators. Since all countries have their own instruments and standards to punish those who violate domestic norms and rules, having similar instruments and standards at the international level seems necessary. Particularly, having firm preventive barriers against violators of international peace and security. The League of Nations and later the United Nations have been established to this end. Both organizations have been established at the end of two wars that the first invaders had failed and the winners – who formed a massive international coalition – had reached an agreement to prevent any war recurrence. According to Friedrich Hoffman, there was an overwhelming consensus among winner states over the necessity of drawing a line between those nations that have decent and reasonable conducts, and those with dishonest and unreasonable manner thus sanctions should be used against those that deserve them (Hoffman, 1967: 144).

The United Nations is presently the main body of decision making on sanctions. Upon the wisdom of liberalism, sanctions are not only used to guarantee the implementation of international norms and regulations, but also they are defined and imposed based on the same norms and regulations. Yet, scholars of liberalism have no common prescriptions for the conditions that justify sanction imposition. They have no consensus about the preference of two principles regarding sanction imposition: making a collective decision or developing international norms. Both norms and rules can be violated. In fact, these two issues [norms and rules] are not necessarily contradicting each other. Norms have a broadened classification so that some of them have become a law, and some others have no legal aspect. A number of Liberal scholars emphasize that economic sanctions should only be used against those countries that have violated an international rule. This law-centered approach which was common during the first half of the 20th century has found many supporters in recent decades (Schrijver, 1994).

Believing in the necessity of imposing sanctions resulted in considering international laws similar to domestic laws and using sanctions as an instrument to ensure enforcement of the approved laws. However, there is another viewpoint  to support sanction imposition, sanctions are also used against any kind of defying international norms. Based on this viewpoint, international laws are not so firm or complete to punish only those who break clear laws. International order and security require standards that many of them have not been approved as international law. Under such circumstances, sanctions are used as an instrument to guarantee observing all international norms and standards by states in the world (Doxey, 1987). According to legalists, although it is acceptable that international laws are weak and incomplete, it is also a source of concern to prescribe sanctions on a large scale since it may possibly legitimize certain powers’ bullying or unilateral behavior. Therefore, using sanctions requires more caution.

Critics have noticed this concern and consequently, emphasized that focusing on international norms is needed. As Margaret Doxey said (1987), if sanctions were used to ensure the interests of the international community, then it would be legitimate to use them even unilaterally. In some cases, securing interests of the international community may lead to ignore some of the international laws or regulations. Sanctions are punitive measures against those states that violate international standards, and thus imposing unilateral sanctions is only allowed when it aims to maintain those standards. It is clear that this is not legitimate to make a threat of imposing sanctions or  practicing it to uphold the interests of sender country, however, in reality of international policy, it is hard to separate the motive of the international community from political interests of the countries. This will bring us closer to the wisdom of realism for imposing economic sanctions. Scholars of realism believe that liberals have an exaggerated optimism towards international relations but international relations are not as law-oriented and civil as imagined by the liberals.

Advocates of realism also believe that using the term of world community to describe international relations is misleading. They consider economic sanctions as an instrument which may possibly be used by countries to secure their own national interests. Since national interests and mostly national authority and security are the main factors in world states’ foreign policy, they will use sanctions if deemed necessary. However, complying with international norms or legitimizing them would reduce the possible costs of sanctions. Hans Joachim Morgenthau argued in his book, Politics Among Nations, that all nations usually respect international laws and regulations with no tangible force because it is along with their own interests. However, there are some cases where a state feels respecting international laws or implementing them would have relatively a negative impact on their authority, therefore if they find the situation appropriate, they defy their commitments. According to Morgenthau, in the history of international relations, pluralistic security is the greatest effort made to eliminate defects of implementing international laws even if it did not lead to a desirable outcome which was meant by international laws.

One of the most obvious examples of this viewpoint is the UN executive mechanism based on the chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. According to chapter VII, consent of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a combination of the most powerful states of the world, is necessary to make major decisions including the imposition of sanctions against violators. However, practically, agreement or disagreement of the permanent members with executive measures against a third country depends on the relations of power among them (Morgenthau, 2000: 472-490). Despite political liberalism which believes economic sanctions are meant to punish illegal and norm-breaking behaviors, followers of political realism believe that sanctions are instruments of foreign policy working in line with national interests. When there is no superior authority in the world, it is misleading to talk about international laws and norms. Decisions made by the international organization are also realized based on the national interests of the countries which are leaders of those organizations. It is possible that under certain circumstances, countries playing the main role, and are self-guided players of international politics, pursue their own interests by imposing sanctions against a third country without facing any obstacle.

Sanctions are not necessarily an instrument used by the rich against the poor. It is possible that small states use sanctions against great powers. In the history of the recent century, there were many examples of sanctions imposed by small countries against great powers with even severe impacts. The Arab states' oil embargo in 1973 against powerful pro-Israel is one of the interesting examples to this end. Naturally, countries with more powerful economy or specific economic advantage are more capable of imposing further effective sanctions. Countries with an international significance that can play an effective role in global political and security disputes are more apt to use their economic capabilities as a political weapon against their opponents. Accepting that all states can use sanctions against their opponents as a necessity for governing that country does not necessarily mean that it will always be useful. Based on the realism theory in international relations, a government is a wise player who thinks to maximize its interests. According to the wisdom of realism, each decision should be made to maximize the power and security of one state against its rival countries.

Therefore, if imposing economic sanctions results in an anti-security outcome or undermines the authority of the sender country, it will be considered unreasonable. There are many situations that imposing economic sanctions will have a boomerang effect, and consequently will be considered an unreasonable decision. Possibly great powers unconsciously prepare the ground for weakening themselves in the eyes of their rivals by unmeasured using sanctions against their opponents. Moreover, if a country with a stronger economy uses sanctions to put pressure on another state with a weak economy but high military power, the former will, from many aspects, be exposed to sanctions’ boomerang effect (Schepp and Schemergal, 2014). Although sanctions, as an option for or complementary to military actions, play a key role in securing national interests, in practice, using sanctions will be useful or reasonable only based on comprehensive and accurate calculations about the outcome of such measure

Based on different pearls of wisdom presented by liberalism and realism about reasons and motives behind sanctions imposition, there is a diversity of analysis for putting on an end to sanctions. Liberals believe that the main purpose for imposing sanctions on certain states is to lead them to submit to international laws and norms. Therefore, sanctions will carry on until this goal is achieved. However, since advocates of realism have theorized sanctions in the framework of the sender countries’ national interest, they believe that sanctions will be terminated when those interests are achieved. What makes it complicated is that finding a precise understanding of national interests is challenging. The nature of national interest might change over time. In addition, the primary purpose of sanctions, which was for example to stop a specific policy such as proliferation of ballistic missiles by target states, could possibly change to a regime change over time, and consequently, the sender country will not stop its pressures even after the halt of that specific policy or after the target state shows more cooperation.

Countries prefer to weaken the strategic capabilities of the target state or destroy them before restoring to the final solution such as military operations. Using economic sanctions is an option that can be used to this end. In such circumstances, the goal of sanctions is the same as what was pursued by a military operation. However, it is pursued through more lenient means (Damrosch, 1993: 300).


3. The US Behavior Regarding the Lift on Sanctions against Iran’s Nuclear

Using sanctions as an instrument for different pretexts was common in US diplomacy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran during the past four decades. However, during the past 15 years, Iran’s nuclear activities have been the main reason for imposing sanctions. During the past decades, US administrations regardless of their disagreements over ways of dealing with Iran, have enjoyed the same idea about the necessity of restricting the country.


3.1 JCPOA and Sanctions against Iran

Sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program which have been formulated and implemented from 2006 to 2013 can be classified into three main types: Sanctions by the UN Security Council, US unilateral sanctions and EU unilateral sanctions. These sanctions have generally been imposed since Iran was trying to pose a threat against international peace and security by developing nuclear weapon. The most severe and most destructive sanctions were imposed by the US. Major US sanctions included:

  1. Exporting gasoline and other refinery products to Iran faced some restrictions, and countries were required to stop providing Iran with technical or facility supports which would help it meet its gasoline and refinery product needs.
  2. Iran’s energy and petrochemical sectors faced unprecedented sanctions. The reason was that all countries who supplied Iran’s necessary goods, services, and technologies in the fields of energy and petrochemistry or helped it to provide other services such as transportation or marketing to develop energy sectors, faced punishments. Having joint investment with Iran to develop oil resources out of the country was also banned.
  3. Iran’s shipping and shipbuilding activities have been sanctioned, and any help to this end including signing or extending insurance contracts has been banned.
  4. Importing Iran’s crude oil, gas condensates or oil products by American or non-American companies have severely been restricted. Oil importing countries from Iran could only continue to import from the country only if they remarkably reduced the amounts of their imports.
  5. Foreign financial institutions were banned from providing services or assisting Iran to move forward its policies dubbed “proliferation of mass destruction weapons” or “support terrorism”. The US Treasury was authorized to penalize those financial institutions.
  6. Iran’s banking sector including its Central Bank and private banks have been deprived of having access to US financial networks, and their relations with non-American financial institutions have been also severely restricted under the pretext of involvement in illegal financial activities and money laundering. In addition, providing financial data for the Iranian banks was ceased. This has faced Iran’s trade ties with problems and highly restricted that.
  7. All assets of the Iranian government or financial institutions in the US have been blocked. Not only every dollar-based interactions of the Iranian financial institutions in the US have been halted, but also they have countered difficulties for having access to their blocked properties in dollar held in foreign banks.
  8. Ownership of Iran’s government over its oil export revenues cannot justify facilitating the transfer of its oil revenues through banking networks inside the country and this will make those revenues non-transferable. Even settlement of debts by those revenues or by swapping of oil with other goods has been limited and made conditional. Providing dollar bills or precious metals has also been considered a violation of sanctions by Iran. Therefore, it was banned to help the country buy or sell or trade precious metals.
  9. Any help to Iran’s automotive industry including provision of necessary goods, services or technologies or facilitating their financial transfer was targeted by sanctions.
  10. Sanctioning Iran’s national currency made it impossible for American companies or citizens to use Iranian rial in their trades. Any US national who has intentionally used Iranian rial in major transactions with Iran or maintained deposits in Iranian rial outside the country was doomed to be punished.
  11. Strict measures have been adopted against any legal or natural persons, who has violated or waived sanctions against Iran, particularly by facilitating monetary transactions or by trading or shipping Iran’s crude oil or its oil products. In addition, the US administration has been authorized to prevent trade relations between those legal or natural persons and American nationals. It was also decided that if branches of companies defied the US sanctions against Iran, the mother company would face punishments (Samore, 2015: 10-11, 30-36).

Despite the unprecedented sanctions imposed by Western powers, the inclination for Continuity of the sanctions was still high. Non-confidential talks on Iran’s nuclear with P5+1 led to the halt in rising and deepening trend of imposing crippling sanctions that have been underway due to the pretext of Iran’s nuclear activities. JCPOA or the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 which was the result of long and strenuous negotiations between the two sides was signed on July 14, 2015, and was implemented a few months later on January 17, 2016. In addition, to put an end to Iran’s nuclear crisis, the deal was extremely welcomed at the international level. Iran and great powers have reached an agreement over the framework of comprehensive cooperation for a conflict that had lasted almost one and a half decade. The great powers have almost agreed to lift any sanction related to Iran’s nuclear program. The UN sanctions were put aside while Iran had not accepted to implement them.


3.2 Problems of Lifting the Sanctions during Obama and Trump Era 

From the beginning of JCPOA implementation, there were some problems for lifting the sanctions mostly rooted in non-nuclear issues between Tehran and Washington. During the first weeks of JCPOA’s implementation, the US started to impose sanctions on Iranian individuals and companies or those related to Iran for non-nuclear reasons including Iran’s missile activities. All these have happened while Iranian authorities have been protesting to the existence of certain restrictions on the country’s international monetary transactions despite the removal of banking sanctions. In mid-April 2016, Valiollah Seif, the Governor of Central Bank of Iran, visited the US to attend a Summit held by the World Bank where he criticized the continuation of banking impediments for Iran. In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Seif  complained that three months after implementation of JCPOA, Iran had no access to its $100bn of seized assets in other countries and European banks are still concerned about facing heavy penalties by US administration. He added while Iran has been completely complying with its obligations, the US was not completely complying with its commitments, and if the situation continued like that the nuclear deal would fail.

Seif also called on the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Treasury Department to dissolve the concerns of European banks by releasing an official statement to provide an appropriate situation for implementation of the JCPOA (Seif, 2016). US officials reacted by saying that Washington commits to its obligations, and the remaining restrictions were related to problems beyond JCPOA. To justify then-existing situation, Obama argued that building confidence and trust for companies to resume activities in Iran is a time consuming procedure, and having concerns to this end is accepted. He pointed out that the main problem was created by the Iranian side since its behavior have led to mistrust or made other companies become concerned. He suggested that Iran should ensure companies of not being after provocative conduct which would increase the risks of loss for cooperating with.

It should be noted that realizing Iran’s demands would only be possible through respecting the spirit of the JCPOA, Obama urged Iran to send signals of maintaining the spirit of the nuclear deal to the companies and international community, and to ensure them the country is not to take provocative measures which would make companies feel uncertain. He pointed out: “…And I always said that I could not promise that Iran would take advantage of this opportunity, and this window to reenter the international community” (Obama, April 1, 2016). Most of the US authorities have emphasized that realization of JCPOA's complete advantages for Iran requires the country to respect US considerations in areas out of the nuclear deal including a halt on Iran’s support for Hezbollah of Lebanon and restraining Iran’s missile program. During the last days of his presence at the White House, Obama extended the emergency executive order regarding Iran for another year after allowing the Congress to legislate its decision for extension of the D’amato or Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) without his signature. Moreover, Secretary of State, John Kerry, referred to a number of remarkable issues about Iran in his farewell note in his last days in the cabinet.

He asserted that the plan to control Iran’s nuclear activities has been achieved, it is time to exert more pressure on the country to curve its missile programs. He emphasized: “We have to continue to push Iran and … on issues including its missile program, support for terrorism, ignoring human rights and its destabilizing interference in internal issues of its neighbors.” He further recommended the next US elected administration to push Iranians to give up their missile ambitions instead of trying to terminate the nuclear deal (Kerry, January 5, 2017). Those problems did not necessarily mean that Iran was not benefiting from the JCPOA. In the first year of JCPOA implementation, the general trend of developments indicated that Iran was successful in removing a large part of sanctions which consequently led to remarkable openness. The post-JCPOA atmosphere made it possible for Iran to establish relations with the other counties more easily and benefit from new opportunities in an ideal way. The situation changed in a way that Iran succeeded again to become an active oil player at OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and to improve its economic growth with more momentum. The anti-Iran US policymakers who had become more active in the post-Obama era were extremely unpleased about those achievements. So making troubles and obstacles even more difficult for JCPOA has become more blatant following the end of the Obama presidency and the beginning of Donald Trump’s era.

Trump was strictly opposed to JCPOA ever since his election campaign, and announced that if he was the winner of the elections, he would withdraw the US from the nuclear deal since he believed it is against US interests (Lorber, November 16, 2016). Following the beginning of his term as the US president, Trump started to exert more severe pressures on Iran and the nuclear deal in practice. Iran was now exposed to a new wave sanctions based on a three stage strategy. The first stage was to accurately and strictly implement the non-nuclear sanctions which existed even when JCPOA was signed but its signatories ignored them. The second stage was to impose new non-nuclear sanctions that were extremely demonstrated in form of exerting sanctions based on the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), and the third stage was the resumption of nuclear sanctions and to increase them if, as warned by the US administration, the status quo would continue. Trump administration has pretended that it was not concerned with disagreement of others, including US European allies, and if deemed necessary, the US would unilaterally withdraw from JCPOA and resume the sanctions.

The current US president basically believed that although the sanctions have helped restrict Iran’s nuclear program to some extent, the Obama administration did not sign a good deal The US had to gain more to serve its interests in return to lifting sanctions. Therefore, the deal itself needs some reforms, and if Iran does not cooperate, there is no reason for the US to keep up its commitments. Trump’s first policy was essentially to amend the deal. But at the same time, he managed to impose a new wave of non-nuclear sanctions in cooperation with the US lawmakers and senators. Trump has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction over the existing deal. He even described it as an embarrassment in his first speech at the UN General Assembly (September 2017). The main logic of Trump and his allies was that JCPOA was not set in favor of the US

During his speech to explain US strategy regarding Iran in October 2017, Trump stressed that during the past four decades Iran has been hostile towards the US, and has continued its approach in the post-JCPOA era. He pointed out: “As I have said many times, the Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. The same mindset that produced this deal is responsible for years of terrible trade deals that have sacrificed so many millions of jobs in our country to the benefit of other countries. We need negotiators who will much more strongly represent America’s interest.” Trump criticized the Obama administration for saving Iran’s regime just when it was on the verge of collapse. Accusing Iran of violating the nuclear deal, Trump said that he cannot and will not certify Iran’s compliance with the deal. He further announced that in coordination with the US Senate, he will work closely with Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran, and essentially amend the deal (Trump, October 13, 2017).

US new administration has used any opportunity to put more pressure and impose more sanctions on Iran. For example, in January 2017 and on the verge of the second anniversary of the JCPOA, the US has introduced a new list of sanctions against Iran under the pretext of some sporadic protests in a number of the cities in Iran. In addition to the country’s arms and missile programs, the list referred to other issues such as human rights violations. To this end, the names of 14 Iranian individuals and companies, including the country’s Judiciary chief, was attached to the list of new sanctions. The sanctions were announced while Trump administration was preparing itself to announce its position regarding a 120-day suspension of the nuclear sanctions. A few hours after announcing the new sanctions, US president said it approved a four-month sanction waiver after new warnings. He said explicitly that would be the last time the US agrees with a suspension of sanctions unless the nuclear deal is subjected to serious amendments.

The first amendment mentioned by Trump was that Iran must agree to immediately facilitate any examination of its nuclear sites by international inspectors to verify the full implementation of the JCPOA. The second was that the 15-year restriction of Iran’s nuclear program should be removed and put under permanent control and supervision. The third was that the issue of restricting Iran’s missile activities should be added to the terms of JCPOA so that any development or test-fire of ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads should be considered as JCPOA violation, and would give the US permission to immediately impose severe sanctions on Iran. From Trump’s viewpoint, the US should be ensured that Iran has not even been close to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the White House burdened the EU with the responsibility of advancing Iran’s nuclear deal amendments. Western media quoted the White House suggesting that the next round of US talks about the nuclear deal will be held with its European allies, not with Iran (Holland, January 12, 2018). Generally, the US behaved in a way that has made it difficult for Iran to benefit from JCPOA’s advantages even if the deal has not been killed.

Based on the nuclear deal, as long as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies Iran’s compliance with its obligations agreed in the JCPOA, the other side cannot prevent the country from benefiting from JCPOA’s advantages. The US authorities knew that repeated threats for withdrawing from the nuclear deal or carrying more amendments which obviously would not be respected by Iran would make it difficult for the country to benefit from the nuclear deal’s advantages. While Iran was complaining that the Obama administration has failed to use the nuclear deal’s benefits, the current US administration has been behaving in a way that it seemed the JCPOA has generally been made at the end of a wrong course. Eventually, after many uncertainties and threats sent by Trump administration, withdrawal from the JCPOA has become certain. On May 8, 2018, the US president has officially announced US withdrawal from the JCPOA. In order to justify this, he referred to a number of Iran’s policies including the development of its missile program and its support for militia groups in the region, and claimed that not only the JCPOA has failed to constrain those policies, but it has also failed to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

Trump has not only resumed US unilateral sanctions against Iran, but he has also announced that more sanctions will be attached to the previous ones. He said: “We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanction. Any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be strongly sanctioned by the United States” (Trump, May 8, 2018). The decision by the US administration has triggered massive negative reactions particularly among leaders of the Obama administration. Denouncing the decision, US close European allies have repeatedly stressed that the nuclear deal is a multilateral agreement, and terminating it unilaterally would not be acceptable.


4. Sanctions based on Foreign Policies of Obama and Trump Administrations

Problems that occurred during the Trump era for the JCPOA, were indicative of the theory of political realism regarding the issue of sanctions. Based on this theory, sanctions could only be imposed or lifted in line with the national interests of the sender powers even if they are against international laws or norms. This was one of the main distinctive characteristics of Obama and Trump administrations’ foreign policy. The two presidents have no similar viewpoints about using sanctions as a foreign policy instrument. Based on the logic of the Obama administration, which is more compatible with liberal internationalism, although the US plays the role of the legitimate ruler of the world, it should not play this role as a hegemon. In contrast, US global leadership should be practiced with benevolence in order to reach international contentment. The US not only needs the cooperation of its allies and partners, but also it essentially needs powerful international organizations. These international organizations, which are the result of mutual dependence and need for international cooperation, are important means for settling international disputes and at the same time for pursuing US interests.

Therefore, Washington has to cooperate with international organizations and institutions, and support strengthening their role in the world. Making individual and unilateral measures by the US is not an appropriate choice for pursuing its national interests including maintaining its hegemonic role in the globe (Callahan, 2008: 172-181). Obama administration was liberal internationalist that in addition to making efforts to pursue US interests, drew attention to international laws and regulations. US former president believed since Iran has been violating international rules and norms through its nuclear activities, the international community had to stop that violation through sanctions. Based on this logic, if the international community, come to the conclusion that Iran’s nuclear activities have come under control and its way towards arms proliferation is closed, there will be no more reason to carry on sanctions. Obama believed that this would better serve US interests. He was even willing to generalize the JCPOA pattern to other issues between Tehran and Washington in order to bring Iran in line with US policy through interaction.

He also believed that the improvement of ties with Iran not only would serve the interests of both nations, but also it would be in favor of the international community. However, Trump administration has made it clear that is not concerned with international norms and laws. In addition to withdrawal from JCPOA against the UN Security Council’s resolution, other measures also were clear examples of new administration’s disrespect for international laws and norms including withdrawal from Paris Agreement, relocating US embassy from Tel Aviv to Beit-ol-Moqaddas (Jerusalem) and embarking a trade war with US trade partners. The political logic of this administration is based on unilateral arrogance which was previously experienced in the foreign policy of George W. Bush administration. According to this viewpoint, the US is the only player that can lead the world, and to this end, it has no need for the cooperation of other states even its close allies. Such a role cannot even be bestowed to international organizations and so US commitment to international laws is conditional and limited. It is possible that international organizations serve US hegemony, and help it play its role as the leader but they will never replace the US, and it is mainly the US that has to direct international organizations and not vice versa.

Sometimes it is even possible that the same international organizations are considered as a danger for US global leadership. Under such circumstances, the US has not to hesitate to defy them. International organizations should never stop the US from pursuing its own interests through means which it deems necessary (Callahn, 2008: 47). Sanctions are attractive for Trump administration not because of the role they play in establishing international rules and norms but for pursuing interests of the US itself. In other words, following Trump’s arrival at the White House, the theory of US sanction policy regarding Iran has changed from liberalism into realism. Unlike Obama who introduced himself as one who is after changing Iran’s behavior, Trump has openly supported the idea of a regime change in Iran, a policy which is strongly rejected based on the present international laws. Trump believes that US former administration has undermined US interests by lifting sanctions on Iran, and saved its government from collapse. At the same time, Trump is willing to use Iran’s issue as a bargaining tool. His performance has proved that he is ready to mount unlimited pressures on Iran only by receiving more interests from the Iran’s rivals or adversaries in the region.

Current US policy does not account for restoration of ties with Iran through accepting the existing realities in that country, because its benefits are less than its losses. The present administration is, on the contrary, seeking to intrigue Iran to show certain reactions and behaviors which would add to previous hostilities between the two countries and facilitate a resumption of crippling nuclear sanctions and consequently, putting Iran in a severe security trap. Trump administration is strongly after undermining Iran’s regional power and supports a regime change in that country. That is why he believes that a halt on crippling sanctions by the Obama administration is unreasonable and against US interests. Surely, Trump suggest that this problem could be solved by withdrawing from JCPOA and resumption of crippling sanctions, although it would undermine international norms and trigger resentment of the US allies. International laws and US international credit are of secondary significance based on Trump administration’s policy as Trump’s measures in humiliating international organizations, the UN and World Trade Organization (WTO) in particular, shows. However, the current US administration has been using international legal standards to form an international mobilization to support sanctioning Iran.

Making repeated accusations against Iran such as its support for terrorism, missile programs, and destabilizing regional policies are all aimed to portray the country as a state which is a law-breaker and against peace, and are also aimed to form a powerful international front against Iran. Under this policy, international norms will be regarded important as long as they serve to pursue the policy of “American First” otherwise they will not deserve any respect. Based on such logic, even if Iran accepts more restrictions on its nuclear activities,  the US return to JCPOA would be impossible


5. Conclusion

As far as the theoretical basis of sanctions in international relations is concerned, there would be dispute between two schools of thoughts including liberalism and realism. The liberal scholars’ viewpoint in international relations is relatively simpler. Based on that, sanctions are unavoidable instruments used by the international community to stop breaching international norms and regulations. As there is a set of punishments in each country for violators of domestic laws and norms, it is necessary to have similar instruments and regulations in the international community. A state which is moving towards violation of or threatening the existing norms should be effectively punished either by the international community as a whole or at least by some of the states that advocate present order. In return, from political realism’s viewpoint, economic sanctions are instruments used by world states multilaterally or unilaterally to ensure their national interests and not for respecting international laws and norms. Countries are of course, willing to justify sanctions imposition, particularly when it is imposed multilaterally, pretending that it was for protecting laws and norms but their true motive is to conceal preserving their own interests behind legal and moral rhetoric.

It is possible that a country that has been sanctioned by a group of other states, had threatened international laws and regulations, however, the main reason of imposing sanctions is the interests of those countries. Therefore, sanctions imposed by the United Nations should not be considered as instruments to protect the international community. In the real world, there are signs of both liberalism and realism logic. As for the issue of Iran’s nuclear deal, evidence showed although the policy of Obama administration was more compliant with the logic of liberalism, the Trump administration’s policy, which has eventually led to US withdrawal from the JCPOA, was based on the logic of realism. Being ensured about Iran’s restricted nuclear activities was enough for Obama administration to lift almost all nuclear sanctions against the country. However, for Trump administration, the nuclear deal was unacceptable because it has failed to serve US maximum interests.

An ideal deal for Trump administration is one that will further restrict Iran’s power, facilitates US dominance over the region, and achieve success in the consensus of US regional allies. Therefore, the US present administration has been trying from different ways to defeat the JCPOA and resume sanctions on Iran and more severe than the past. Obama’s foreign policy was based on a liberal internationalism which gives great importance to maintaining international laws and organizations. However, this does not necessarily mean that there was a pure multilateralism in Obama's foreign policy as even during his term, US interests were defined to some extent beyond the borders of liberalism but the focal point of his foreign policy was to maintain liberal international laws and regulations. Based on this policy, it was believed that since Iran had violated international laws and norms by its nuclear activities, then the international community should make the country submit to the international norms, through punitive instruments like sanctions. According to this logic, if the international community conclude that Iran has stopped its nuclear activities, and it has no way to use nuclear technology for military purposes, then sanctions can be lifted. Obama accepted the nuclear deal based on this logic.

However, Trump’s performance has proved that international norms are of secondary significance for him. Therefore, he was attracted to sanctions not because of establishing international laws but for pursuing US interests which are basically defined by dominating the entire world. Of course, international laws and norms have not been totally ignored during Trump’s term in office but they are regarded as important as long as they can be served as a mean to facilitate US hegemony. From this viewpoint, the US return to JCPOA or lifting sanctions are all dependent on essential changes in Iran’s policies beyond the issue of its nuclear activities. Otherwise, the US is free to unlimitedly mount sanctions pressures on Iran even if it leads to social collapse and regime change in that country. Therefore, Iran needs to reconsider its diplomacy based on new relations.



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